When referring to flutists with fast fingers, the implication is that they can play a challenging passage quickly, cleanly, and with ease. However, there is another way to look at this by taking the term fast fingers literally – the ability to move each finger fast and efficiently. Every flutist with focused practice can improve the quality of the movement of each finger and the speed in which it moves.
Assessment and Suggestions
With your phone, video yourself playing the following measure four times slurred, with the camera set facing you, and with both hands visible in the frame. (When playing back, if you have difficulty assessing these issues, there are several apps that may be downloaded for free that slow videos, so you may further examine each finger’s movement. One that many musicians use is Coach’s Eye, the free app version.)
On the first playback, notice if your fingers are moving with ease and precision. The best players make it look easy. To accomplish this ease, practice the pattern with the metronome set to tick on each sixteenth note. As you repeat the exercise, increase the speed one notch. This auditory suggestion does wonders for the fingers. String players speak of having articulate fingers. Thinking the word articulate may help too.
Check whether your knuckles are positioned to be at the same height as the finger tips on the indentations (open holes) on the flute. Long-time Flute Talk columnist Michel Debost suggested imagining that you are “pulling a horizontally positioned book off the shelf” to organize the right hand. Do this gesture a few times checking for a gentle arch of the fingers, rather than a severe curve of the fingers. This exercise helps the alignment of the knuckles with the finger tips. Notice if the movement is initiated from the third knuckle back from the nail. Anatomy and movement specialists believe that this is where the movement should originate.
To find the best placement for the thumb, pick up a soda can or bottle of water and notice the relationship of the thumb to the other fingers. Some thumbs will be under the index finger, while others fall between the index and middle finger or under the middle finger. Do what is natural for you.
After lifting the finger, does it stay in position or does it straighten out? Many flutists develop the habit of straightening a finger while lifting it off the key. This extra motion slows down playing the passage because there is an extra unnecessary movement incorporated before they use the finger again. Play a few trills (F to G in the first or second octave) and notice how efficiently the finger works. This is the movement to strive for with all fingers.
Determine whether fingers remain close to the keys when lifted. Generally, they should be kept as close to the keys as possible. (However, professional flutists sometimes over-finger difficult passages for control. This means lifting the fingers slightly higher than usual to keep them from rushing. This suggestion is for advanced flutists only.)
Next, notice whether the left index finger lifts with each repetition of the D on the fourth line. This is the most common fingering error – keeping the left index finger down when playing D in the middle octave. If you keep it down, the tone is dull. Katherine Borst Jones, flute professor at The Ohio State University, names this finger to help her student remember to lift “Herbert” or whatever you select to call the left index finger.
For the next note E, check whether the right-hand pinkie opens the D# key. Not having the right-hand pinkie on the D# key is the second most common fingering error. Like D, E sounds dull and flat without an open D# key.
Check stability and balance. As you remove fingers on the ascent, the weight of the flute should not shift to the left and then back to the right as you descend. The goal is to keep the flute equally balanced in the hands with no movement of the flute at all.
Check the position of the left-hand pinkie. Novice flutists often let the pinkie drop when not in use. Strive to keep it in position as if it is the next note in the passage.
Look at the left-hand thumb. It should be straight and pointing to the ceiling. The bottom of the thumb key should touch the left-hand pinkie at the first crease back from the nail. For most, this means that the key touches farther down the thumb. Avoid saying curve your fingers when teaching as the thumb should not be curved.
Flutists often lose time in a passage at the initiation stage of the movement. This means there is a delay in getting the finger to move from the first to the second note. When noticing this in a student or yourself, it is time to practice mordents. A mordent is an ornament indicating that the note is to be played with a single, fast alteration with the note above or below (which is indicated with a slash through the mordent).
The rhythmic relationship is short, short, long. Start with an F major scale and play a mordent followed by a rest on each note of the scale using real (not trill) fingerings. Begin with the mordents that alternate with the note above. The goal is to make each mordent sound the same with regards to rhythmic values up and down the scale. Be sure the beginning of the first note is on the beat rather than before. You can check this by working with the metronome and recording yourself to check for accuracy. Each day practice one major scale this way. Check the key signature because some of the mordents will be whole steps and others half steps.
Select a passage that you find difficult to execute quickly. This could be from solo repertoire or an etude. Practice tremolos between each two notes with the regular fingerings (no trill fingerings). A tremolo is a rapid alteration between two pitches. Play each tremolo for four seconds followed by a breath, then eight, twelve, and sixteen. As you play for a longer time, most find that it is difficult to keep the tremolo even rhythmically. Conquering this skill will improve the movement of the fingers. Some of the tremolos may be step-wise which are easier than the ones with larger intervals. The benefit of working with larger intervals is that the fingerings are complex – in some cases with some fingers closing keys while others are opening them. Practicing a difficult passage with tremolos daily for several weeks ensures that at concerts or lessons the fingers will move evenly and cleanly. When practicing this exercise, try to remain calm and relaxed. The goal is economy of motion in the fingers. Doing this exercise with a mirror or video recording is a good idea. Using something like the Coach’s Eye app shows where there are issues in the technique.
One of my concerns with beginning band books is that flutists are never required to play fast. Since these books are written for classroom situations with other instruments present, students play in unison most of the time. This speed is fine for many of the instruments, but it is not the personality of the music flutists are eventually required to play. In orchestral scores, flutists play many notes along with the violins, while the brass instruments are playing notes of longer values. To combat this curriculum issue, I suggest that as flutes, oboes, clarinets, and saxophones learn new notes, they begin trilling between those fingerings. If flutists learn B and A first, they can practice trilling from B to A and then A to B. Good music educators bring in supplemental materials for these woodwinds in the form of finger twisters.
The worst downside of playing so slowly in the first year of instruction is that the hand position often evolves into fingers hanging off the keys, which is something that a private teacher will have to address later. Better to have flutists play fast from the beginning and learning to place the fingertips in the center of the keys.
If you want to learn to play fast, you have to practice playing fast. This is a statement I make especially to my adult students. They are comfortable playing slowly and moderato, but shy away from vivace. In a masterclass, Michel Debost mentioned that when a flutist is asked to play in church, they immediately think about playing a Baroque slow movement. He said this is the worst choice for an audition or performance because playing slowly shows all your flaws. It is better to select one of the allegro movements because the joy and excitement of the music will hide a lot of sloppy fingers.
When closing the keys with the finger tips, avoid any clanging noise or percussive effects. Doublers often have this issue because of the unfamiliarity of the secondary instrument. Practicing mordents and eventually regularly fingered trills trains the fingers to the new hand position.
As you approach an entrance, the fingers should already be in place for the first note of the next passage. Many adult flutists wait until the last moment to get their fingers into position. This last-minute flurry of action causes the first note to have an awkward sounding attack. Remember when finishing one passage and counting measures to enter again, skim ahead and look at the first note of the next phrase. During the rest, get the fingers into position to play the first note.
Fast, efficient fingers are possible for every player. Time spent working on fingering strategies will lead to great results.